France could soon be the European leader in artificial intelligence, if investment from both the government and companies including Google and Microsoft pays off.

At the end of March, President Macron laid out a new national strategy for artificial intelligence, including a €1.5bn investment over the next five years that will help to support research, boost startups and cultivate a database for engineers to use and share. Designed to compete with the United States and China, and draw more top researchers to France, the measures are also helping to attract the attention of some of the biggest companies in the field.

Earlier in the month, Microsoft opened the doors to France’s first AI school, offering a free seven-month course. Over the next three years, the school will teach 500 AI developers as part of Microsoft’s larger AI Skills programme that is set to train 400,000 people in the next three years and create 3,000 new jobs in the French digital ecosystem. In addition to Microsoft’s $30m investment, Google is expanding its Paris office, creating a new artificial intelligence research centre, and setting up Google Hubs around France to help local partners learn digital skills. Facebook, too, has announced that it will inject a further €10m into the Paris research centre it created in 2015, increasing its PhD research support fourfold and doubling the number of researchers and engineers.

With established appeal for large tech companies and significant government investment, France seems well positioned to take the lead in artificial intelligence research within Europe. It remains to be seen, however, how the country fully plans to follow through on its goals and whether other European countries should feel threatened or pleased at potential collaboration.

Top-down technocracy: government investment for an artificially intelligent future

A report by the Centre for Cities found earlier this year that parts of the UK could see 33% of jobs taken by automation; PwC’s Workforce of the future report suggests that a future that could see only 9% of US workers in full-time ‘permanent’ employment and a study compiled by the McKinsey Global Institute says that by 2030 as many as 800 million jobs could be lost worldwide to automation. In many ways, the new proposals for France’s AI industry are designed to mitigate the potential risk of those losses, by creating a highly-trained workforce to operate within the new tech industries rather than be replaced by them.

Talking to Wired in an interview following the announcement of the new strategy, President Macron explained the importance of AI to France. “I think artificial intelligence will disrupt all the different business models and it’s the next disruption to come. So I want to be part of it,” he said. “Otherwise I will just be subjected to this disruption without creating jobs in this country. So that’s where we are. And there is a huge acceleration and as always the winner takes all in this field.”

The success of artificial intelligence as an industry is something that Macron seems to consider all but certain, a fact that doubtless has contributed to the urgency he places on ensuring France’s place in AI’s broader disruption. The threat of job losses without appropriate upskilling in the workforce, combined with the prospect of falling behind in the race to become a leader in the field, are certainly motivating factors for the president.

But these factors are global, and which any leader will face as artificial intelligence advances. More particular to Macron is the way in which he views the role of the state regarding AI, and how he hopes to shape the industry’s presence within his country.

Macron wishes to federalise AI, to control the impact of the technology’s disruption by ensuring that the government has strong oversight and involvement with its advancement. Rather than leaving it to private interests, the French approach will be interdisciplinary and private-public. Doing so involves an openness that many tech companies elsewhere have skirted; while said companies have been more likely to simply ask consumers to trust the algorithm, Macron seems determined to ensure that France’s place in the artificial intelligence revolution is as transparent as possible, that citizens know exactly what the government is investing in and why.

“If we want to defend our way to deal with privacy, our collective preference for individual freedom versus technological progress, integrity of human beings and human DNA, if you want to manage your own choice of society, your choice of civilisation, you have to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution,” Macron continued. “That’s the condition of having a say in designing and defining the rules of AI. That is one of the main reasons why I want to be part of this revolution and even to be one of its leaders. I want to frame the discussion at a global scale.”

“There is a huge acceleration and, as always, the winner takes all in this field.”

The notion of responsibility in the realm of artificial intelligence is a prominent one, with figures such as Elon Musk believing that AI could well represent an apocalypse scenario if not treated with appropriate caution. Macron’s emphasis on a certain sovereign responsibility, however, seems somewhat unique and has clearly proliferated, at least in speech, to those companies seeking to operate within the French AI space.

“The two leaders in AI are today the US and China. In the US, this is driven by the private sector, large corporations, and some start-ups. All choices are private choices that deal with collective values,” explains Florent Embarek, regional director of southern Europe at cybersecurity firm Cylance. “Chinese players collect a lot of data driven by a government whose principles and values are not France's values. Europe has not exactly the same collective preferences as US or China.

“France and Europe want to defend their way to deal with privacy, their collective preference for individual freedom versus technological progress, integrity of human beings and human DNA. France [and] Europe want to manage their own choice of society, their choice of civilisation. This is why France has to be able to be an acting part of this AI revolution.

“That’s the condition of having a say in designing and defining the rules of AI; that is one of the main reasons why France wants to be part of this revolution, and even to be one of its leaders.”

The case for collaboration to establish European sovereignty

Cédric Villani, mathematician, Fields Medal winner and vice president of the French Parliamentary Office for the Evaluation of Scientific and Technological Choices, took the lead on Macron’s AI task force. His goal was to assemble a report that would lay out the roadmap for a country that is known for the quality of its engineers and scientists, but struggles to retain much of its top-tier talent. With more money and less research constraints often on offer abroad, a large part of France’s strategy seems to come down to making it so that not only are some of the best minds emerging in the country, but that they are then staying there.

Given the aforementioned concern over China and the US’ head start, it could easily be that France approaches the scaling up of its artificial intelligence efforts as an all-out contest with the other nations in the field. However, it seems that Macron is more interested in positioning France to lead as part of established European cooperation, rather than breaking out to lead individually. That is not to say that there is no spirit of competition within his strategy, but rather that he seems to view artificial intelligence’s potential impact on the status quo as being so significant that to ignore the prospect of cooperation is to ignore key contextual aspects of how the world is going to be changed by the artificial intelligence revolution.

“It should be constructed not in an ambiance of war but in the spirit of competition.”

As the president explained to Wired, when asked about Elon Musk’s pessimism regarding competition for AI superiority: “I think that the core basis of artificial intelligence is research. And research is global. And I think this artificial intelligence deals with cooperation and competition, permanently. So you need an open world and a lot of cooperation if you want to be competitive.”

It is a framework for AI ideology that seems to have either stemmed from the work of Villani’s task force or was at least handed down to that task force. While there is certainly a competitive element to the French strategy, it appears to be grounded in a notion of responsibility. Villani, who entered the world of politics just last year, speaks of being motivated both by a desire to serve France, but also to ensure the presence of science within politics. Having left his position as the director of Sorbonne University's Institut Henri Poincaré, a mathematics research institute, to enter the political fray, it seems appropriate that Villani would respect the value of cooperation in research.

Moreover, both Villani and Macron have specifically spoken about “European sovereignty” in artificial intelligence. Macron has been positioning France to take a greater leadership role within the European Union since ascending to the presidency, particularly in light of the gap left by the UK’s exit, and it seems that both he and his team view the step-change caused by artificial intelligence to necessitate a continental response. Perhaps because of the degree to which artificial intelligence could radically alter existing structures, the French approach seems to contain intent to solidify those structures and work to establish a collaborative European framework for artificial intelligence.

At an Ask Me Anything event at Paris’ Station F, billed as the world’s biggest startup campus, Villani weighed in on competition in the AI space. “We need more infrastructure, we need a European cloud, we need more European intensive computing centres, we need a European hardware industry, we need more European research centres — and that will take time and money,” he warned. “But it’s worth it because that will [help ensure] European sovereignty. And it should be constructed not in an ambiance of war but in the spirit of competition.”

Continental competition – will Paris be an ally or a threat to other European efforts?

Perhaps the larger question, however, is not whether Paris intends to extend a hand of cooperation to other European nations, but whether those nations themselves view the ongoing investment in France as a threat to their own efforts, or an opportunity for collaborative innovation. France is certainly not the only nation looking to establish themselves as an AI powerhouse in Europe. Germany’s Max Planck Society is looking to create a tech hub, referred to as Cyber Valley, between Stuttgart and Tübingen, and in the UK, London is looking to mimic Paris’ recent tech investments.

Cyber Valley has already drawn a research partnership with Amazon that will see both the creation of a research centre and a $1.5m investment into awards for various research groups. Meanwhile, London tech firms attracted more venture capital in 2017 than the next nine European cities put together. In the field of artificial intelligence specifically, UK companies attracted just over double the investment figures of 2016, topping £200m for London companies and the UK as a whole seeing investment of £488m.

Speaking in January in advance of the inaugural event of his TechInvest programme, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said: “London is home to Europe’s leading tech ecosystem and some of the brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs in the world. In particular, we are establishing ourselves as world leaders in artificial intelligence, which we celebrate today.”

“London is home to Europe’s leading tech ecosystem and some of the brightest and most innovative entrepreneurs in the world.”

The competition among nations clearly exists, the desire to be the forerunner in artificial intelligence a powerful motivator for research investment. That is not to say, however, that the strive for superiority in the field should be considered only in national terms, as it may be that the focus instead should lie purely in the realm of technology. Although significant steps in research will no doubt benefit the country they occur in, the nature of the technology means that is likely to quickly proliferate beyond national borders. That being the case, any competition is less likely to be focused around countries, and more around companies.

“The race is not so much about countries, but about technology,” summarises Martin Micko, COO and co-founder at Berlin-based AI data processing startup omni:us. “We continue to see a really healthy amount of successful AI companies making noise across Europe, and after all, ‘the early bird catches the worm’.

“As we close more promising deals with several players in the insurance and banking sectors over the last year, we’re continuing to have very open conversations with respectable insurers about how our solutions could revolutionise their process, portfolio and workforce.”

Given this aspect of the competition within the industry, and the drive from France to approach things with a view towards European leadership, it could be that although we will doubtless continue to see nations strive to attract the best researchers and the most investment from companies such as Google, there will also be a movement towards a greater unification of research. Considering in particular the head start that the US and China have, if Europe is to catch up a continental approach may be the stronger proposition, and placing an emphasis on the best work rather than where it comes from could allow for a better final result.

“We’re seeing a continuing trend of investment from a number of global players. Countries like China are investing in a governmental capacity and we’re also seeing a strong response from corporate players, like Google and Facebook, amongst others,” says Micko. “Europe on the whole, including Germany, is financially a little behind the overall global development, however the market is a hotbed of development and it won’t be long before we see European and German initiatives beginning to shift focus more and more.

“Looking at the wider picture in Europe, funding, people, infrastructure and ecosystems all play a vital role, and the region is in good shape for attracting some really bright talent and educating these critical resources in numerous leading research and educational institutions.”

Share this article